The improvised weapons used by al Qaeda operatives to hijack airliners ultimately dragged the US into a bitter, bloody and expensive generational conflict that has killed almost as many Americans as the September 11 attacks
themselves. Now President Joe Biden says it's time for US and other NATO troops to leave.
He has a point. Some US service personnel weren't even born yet when the war started. Washington has tried everything — surging troops, partial withdrawals, talks with the Taliban — and nothing ever paved the way home. Does it still make sense to send youngsters from Sioux City, Iowa, or Bremen, Kentucky, to die in the Panjshir Valley or Helmand province?
But while the US is leaving the war, the people of Afghanistan can't. The President's decision could hasten the Taliban's toppling of Afghanistan's tenuous democracy, ushering in a new fundamentalist dark age. And what can he tell the families of soldiers who died there — or the tens of thousands of Afghan civilians killed in the most recent chapter of the country's many decades of war? Was it worth it?
For the bereaved, that's a harrowing, impossible question. But leaders who send troops to war must answer it. Biden, who went directly from his speech to Section 60 at Arlington National Cemetery
, made a point of declaring some kind of victory — pointing out that the US long ago defeated al Qaeda in Afghanistan and killed its leader Osama bin Laden in his hideout in Pakistan.
Biden's predecessors also wanted out. But when it came to it, Barack Obama and Donald Trump both decided the time was not right — partly fearing an al Qaeda or ISIS resurgence and for the Afghans left behind. Biden has concluded the right time will never come.
"We went to Afghanistan because of a horrific attack that happened 20 years ago. That cannot explain why we should remain there in 2021," he said.
The President is taking a calculated risk. From outside, the US will be less effective in suppressing the possibility of a new terror haven. And if Kabul falls, it will be on him.
'War was never meant to be a multigenerational undertaking'
"War in Afghanistan was never meant to be a multigenerational undertaking," Biden said Wednesday in the White House Treaty Room -- the same place where then-President George W. Bush first announced the war in October 2001 and vowed, "We will not waver, we will not tire, we will not falter, and we will not fail."
'Problems will certainly be compounded'
The Taliban on Wednesday reiterated their call for the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan "on the date specified in the Doha Agreement," referencing the May 1 deadline agreed to by Trump, rather than Biden's September 11 timeline. A further tweet by spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid added that "if the agreement is breached and foreign forces fail to exit [our] country on the specified date, problems will certainly be compounded and those whom failed to comply with the agreement will be held liable."
What the spies said
Top intelligence leaders told the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday which threats and geopolitical puzzles keep spies up at night. See what they said below, then get the full story here.
"The intelligence community does not know exactly where, when or how Covid-19 virus was transmitted initially ... " Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told lawmakers that US intelligence still has not pinpointed the pandemic's origins, though two dominant theories remain that "it emerged naturally from human contact with infected animals or it was a laboratory accident."
"When the time comes for the US military to withdraw, the US government's ability to collect and act on threats will diminish ... "
The CIA's operations in Afghanistan have long depended on the traditional military presence there, and CIA Director William Burns warned that intelligence capabilities would "diminish" after withdrawal. "It is clear that our ability to keep that threat ... in check from either al Qaeda or ISIS in Afghanistan has benefited greatly from the presence of US and coalition militaries on the ground and in the air, fueled by intelligence provided by the CIA and our other intelligence partners," Burns said.
"We're opening a new investigation in China every 10 hours and I can assure the committee that's not because our folks don't have anything to do with their time." The FBI has more than 2,000 investigations involving the Chinese government, FBI Director Christopher Wray revealed. "I don't think there is any country that presents a more severe threat to our innovation, our economic security and our democratic ideas," he added, describing one alleged Chinese operation to "threaten, intimidate, harass, blackmail" members of the Chinese diaspora.